Along with debates over the state budget, education, healthcare and the economy, the 2013 session of the Indiana General Assembly will likely have marijuana on the agenda. Two senators have said they may introduce legislation regarding marijuana laws and a study commission’s recommendations include changes to the marijuana crime penalties.
Many maintain Indiana leans too conservative for radical changes to marijuana laws. Yet, while the arguments over the drug continue, there is a growing chorus that the Hoosier state needs to address the issue.
Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, authored a bill in the 2012 session reducing the penalties for possession and use of small amounts of marijuana. The proposal received a hearing but did not get a vote, and she has indicated she intends to re-introduce the bill this session.
Across the aisle, Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, has been floating the idea of reducing possession of less than 10 grams from a misdemeanor to an infraction.
Democratic Floor Leader Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, believes marijuana-related legislation may get some traction this session. She does not believe Indiana has the appetite to embrace legalization like Colorado and Washington, but she does see a possible willingness to reduce the penalties, especially for small amounts.
“I hope she (Tallian) and Brent Steele will be able to do something about this,” Lawson said.
Reducing penalties for marijuana is still a novel idea in the Legislature, said Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis. Advocates for revamping the law fall into two categories: those who have a Libertarian bent and those who believe marijuana is akin to alcohol.
Outside of these two groups, the money spent on law enforcement and incarceration, in particular, is becoming the most compelling reason for decriminalization.
A 2010 report from the Council of State Governments Justice Center highlighted Indiana’s alarming trend in sentencing. It found that while the state’s crime rate fell from 2000 to 2008, the prison population grew by 41 percent. Along with that, the appropriations to the Indiana Department of Correction increased by 24 percent to $616 million.
Money is also a common reason cited by advocates outside the General Assembly. Resources are being spent for police officers to arrest and process low-level marijuana offenders, the court system bogs down under the volume of these cases, and the prisons fill with non-violent inmates who each cost $20,000 to $30,000 annually to keep locked up.
Although DeLaney has doubts about lowering the consequences for marijuana, he concedes the financial aspect raises a key question. Namely, is the state spending taxpayer money to put people in prison for, in his words, a relatively minor offense?
Steele cited the amount of state dollars being spent as his main reason for taking a closer look at marijuana laws.
“As a practicing attorney, I’ve seen a significant amount of state dollars spent on prosecuting and incarcerating individuals caught with small amounts of marijuana,” he stated in a press release. “We have to ask ourselves if this is the best use of our criminal justice resources.”
Indianapolis-based defense attorney Ross Thomas added that the resource issue is not just about dollars but also about how law enforcement is spending its time. Arresting and processing someone for having a joint takes the police officer off the street and prevents acting on more serious matters like property crimes and violent crimes.
“If I have the choice between having a police officer respond to a domestic violence situation and respond to some young adults smoking pot,” Thomas said, “I want him to deal with the domestic violence case.”
While the savings in the criminal justice system might be easy to measure, the question remains whether the cost would truly be reduced. If smaller amounts of marijuana were decriminalized would the price shift to problems like higher rates of absenteeism at work?
That answer is not known and likely would require a study being done, said Geneva Brown, professor at Valparaiso University Law School. However, she pointed to California as a possible indication that the savings would be absolute. When medicinal use of marijuana became legal, the underground activity moved above ground and the state was able to collect tax revenue.
“I think we spend so much money on incarceration and with the economy the way it is, we’re going to have to be smart about how we’re spending our resources,” Brown said.
Recommendations to consider
The Criminal Code Evaluation Commission Work Group that reviewed Indiana’s criminal law and ultimately offered a proposal for sweeping changes did recommend changes to marijuana penalties but stopped short of decriminalization.
The work group advised reducing all possession of marijuana to a misdemeanor. Currently, possession starts as a Class A misdemeanor but jumps to a Class D felony if the amount involved is 30 grams or more, or if the person has a prior conviction of any marijuana offense.
Under the recommendations, possession would not rise above the misdemeanor level. More than 10 pounds would trigger the harshest charge, a Class A misdemeanor. The penalties for dealing marijuana would begin at a Class B misdemeanor and rise to the maximum of a Class C felony for amounts over 10 pounds.
It did not recommend decriminalization or reducing lower levels of possession to an infraction. That is what the work group thought was appropriate, said CCEC work group chair Deborah Daniels. If the amount is large enough to constitute evidence of intent to distribute, then the individual can be so charged.
Formerly a U.S. attorney and U.S. assistant attorney general, Daniels does not support decriminalization of marijuana. She has worked drug cases and seen the corrupting influence as well as violence tied to marijuana. As for recreational use, she believes it not only is a gateway drug but has more significant short- and long-term effects on individuals because its potency has been greatly enhanced.
Thomas and criminal defense attorney Andrew Maternowski, both in solo practice, have represented defendants in marijuana cases across Indiana and they maintain the penalties are too stringent for a drug they see as harmless.
For example, if an individual pleads guilty to a misdemeanor for a small amount of marijuana, that person will have a criminal record which could hinder his or her ability to rent an apartment or get a job. Having marijuana in the car with children can lead to the parents being charged with neglect.
Also, drivers could lose their licenses for 90 days which, in turn, could hamper their ability to go to court-ordered treatment or meet with their probation officer. It could balloon into a larger issue if the individual loses his or her job as a result, then with no paycheck, gets behind on child support payments.
The attorneys are most concerned about how easy it is for someone to get charged with a felony and face jail time.
“We’re calling a significant number of people in our society, who aren’t hurting anybody, felons,” Maternowski said. “We’re doing more harm than good.”•